What, besides the $350 million cut from the state court system and the U.S. Supreme Court ordering the California government to reduce its prison population by 3,300 inmates over a two-year period, could further complicate the state’s criminal justice system?
When Assembly Bill 109 goes into effect on Oct. 1, nonviolent, non-serious and non-sex offenders will serve their sentences in county jails instead of state prisons. Parole cases for what is known as the “non non nons” will shift from state parole agents to county probation officers. The potential for the perfect storm, local officials agreed, is brewing in law enforcement and criminal justice systems in counties throughout the state.
“These are two distinctly different populations (certain state detainees v. county inmates). We used to rely on the state to manage, but it will now be the responsibility of local agencies,” said Ventura County Chief Probation Officer Mark Varela. “It’s a big deal, a paradigm shift for those who work in the system. Talk to anybody who has worked in the criminal justice system over the past 20 years. This is probably the biggest shift in criminal justice practices in decades. We’re trying to prepare ourselves as quickly as possible for this.”
Inmates in state prison prior to Oct. 1 will not be transferred to county jails. Yet the new legislation mandating that those convicted of a “non” be sentenced to county jails instead of prison will assuredly lead to overcrowding. Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean said he is anticipating 380 to 400 additional inmates per year.
“We anticipate that in 18 months, we will be at capacity,” Dean said. “County jails weren’t designed to hold people for long periods of time. … This is going to be a significant challenge for us.”
Ventura Police Chief Ken Corney said that once the county jails reach their capacity, “we will no longer be able to hold pre-sentence offenders or possibly misdemeanor offenses. … This clearly creates further complications for keeping communities safe and reducing crime.”
Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 109 into law in April. The legislation’s aim is to meet the court-ordered mandate to reduce the number of state prison inmates, realign state responsibilities to local governments and curtail state spending.
“Cycling these offenders through state prisons wastes money, aggravates crowded conditions, thwarts rehabilitation, and impedes local law enforcement supervision,” said Brown in a press release.
With crowding in the state prison system hovering around 180 percent of design capacity, transferring the problem to the county jails only undercuts the issue, local law officials said. In Ventura County, the state has issued $5.7 million for the current fiscal year for services pertaining to AB 109, requiring an executive committee to form and put together a realignment plan that would properly allocate resources, and somehow implement programs to prevent jail overcrowding. The committee includes the sheriff, district attorney, public defender, director of behavioral health, a local police chief, a presiding judge and the chief probation officer.
Varela said the allocation of resources has yet to be defined. Both Varela and Dean said they are looking into electronic monitoring systems for inmates released early.
“There will be a judicial triage,” Dean said. “We’ll decide who needs to be in custody and who is out on electronic monitoring.” Funding beyond this fiscal year has currently not been approved, nor is it constitutionally mandated.
“This is a big change in policy, a whole different look,” added Dean. “I think we can do things better at the local level than how it is done at a state level. The challenge, is the funding they’re providing isn’t adequate for the plans laid out.”
In 2005, Ventura had 25 parolees. There are currently about 400 parolees in Ventura and 600 in Oxnard, numbers that have increased significantly. Current data shows a recidivism rate of 70 percent in California — the highest in the nation.